Let's continue our series on the big special teams plays of the season. Already this year we have covered the following plays:
1. Week 2 - Dez Bryant's Punt Return vs Chicago
2. Week 4 - Tennessee's Marc Mariani Kickoff Return
Today, we look at Percy Harvin's devastating kick return in Week 5 versus the Vikings. This TD return was a crucial play in a must-win game for both teams. We see in this very close clash that the best way to lose a close, competitive game like this is for a Special Teams bust.
This play happened just one week after the Mariani return, and the Cowboys kick cover team has changed quite a bit. Please review and compare with link above about that return to see specifically who has been "reassigned".
I broke this down on October 21, so much of the rest is a review of that post. Check it out.
Let's talk kick coverage. I wish I knew more about special teams, but I really am doing a lot of common sense guessing here so please understand that some of the more general concepts about kick returning make sense to me, but when my sources get complex on the issue, I sometimes struggle.
But, What you see above is how the 22 players were deployed at the start of the Harvin Return in Minnesota on Sunday.
The Cowboys had the following 11 players on kick cover from left to right: 43- Sensabaugh (L1), 32-Scandrick (L2), 58-JWilliams (L3), 40-McCray (L4), 17-Hurd (L5), 18-Buehler (K), 16-Holley (R5), 57-Butler (R4), 50-Lee (R3), 27-Owasu-Ansah (R2), and 42-Church (R1).
And what you see is a rather standard return scheme from the Vikings. Their 6 players up front attempt to get bodies on 32, 58, 40, 17, 50, and 27. Then, the 2 Vikings in the wedge in front of Harvin get 16, and 57. If this works (which it clearly did), the Vikings have eliminated the 8 players who are most likely to doom a middle return.
Take a look at how the play matched up, below:
It is my understanding that the Vikings (or any return team, for that matter) want their guys up front and the wedge to clear out the middle 8 of the Cowboys on a "middle return". That would leave the kicker, and the two guys on the edge unaccounted for. The two wide players for the Vikings in front of Harvin are 59-Farwell and 40-Kleinsasser. This is where I would love for a special teams coach to walk me through their responsibility, but my common sense guess is that they are pretty much assigned to clean up the scraps and help where help is needed. Kleinsasser pretty much isn't needed to do anything but get on 18-Buehler, while Farwell helps out on McCray.
So, the Cowboys edge guys go untouched - but that appears to be the design of the return. In any offense vs defense concept, there will always be someone who is unblocked because the ball carrier cannot block for himself. This is really true on special teams play, so if the return team cannot account for everyone, why not leave the guys furthest away with the worst angle unblocked? Sensabaugh and Church have to keep contain, because if there is one thing the L1 and R1 players cannot do on a kick cover it is lose the edge to a speed burner like Harvin. "Turn it back inside" is a yell you will always here at special teams practices. So, they cannot cheat on their angle of attack.
Now, the moment of truth. The Vikings get 10 hats on 9 players. None of the 9 can defeat their blocks enough to get Harvin. That leaves 2 Cowboys untouched who will each get a shot at the returner. If they don't get him, this is going to be ugly.
Sensabaugh has him at the 25 and completely whiffs. That simply cannot happen. He is a starting safety who is used to open field tackling, and he hardly gets Harvin to break stride. Poor technique and poor execution. From there, Church gets a shot 5 yards later and while he didn't have as good a shot at him, he didn't slow Harvin down either.
I am sure it is a concept that they work on over and over again. If you are unblocked, we cannot miss. The fact that L1 (Ball) and L2 (Ogletree) were beaten last week in the Mariani return and replaced by a new L1 (Sensabaugh) and L2 (Scandrick)- then the new L1 misses a wide open tackle show you how frustrating it can be to coach special teams.
By the way, overall, we should point out that the Cowboys did not keep gap integrity or stay in their lanes. You can see 58-Williams over pursue and take himself out of the play. You can see most of the left side collapse to the right before Harvin catches the kick. To say you could navigate the Queen Mary down the middle of that field may be an overstatement, but the Cowboys sure made this look easy for the Vikings.
Special teams can win or lose games for you, and in each of the last 2 weeks, the Cowboys gave up gigantic returns and lost by 1 score. Do the math.
Feel free to leave comments below, special teams experts, and tell us what else you see from the kick cover unit.